Oriole

I have a confession to make. I am almost exactly the same age as the wonderful Soviet movie We’ll Live Till Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel’nika, Stanislav Rostotsky, dir., 1968), which was filmed during the fiftieth anniversary year of the 1917 Russian Revolution. It is simply the best movie I have ever seen in any language about the value of and balance between formal education and sentimental education, about the conflicts between teachers and pupils, and misunderstandings among generations. It also has plenty to say, mostly between the lines but fairly boldly, about the Soviet Union in its middle age, the teaching of history, the fading revolutionary legacy, and importance of solidarity and “foolish” resistance. And it does all of it in a way that is not trivial or boring or predictable even for a second, and performed by wonderful ensemble cast of mostly teenage actors led by the beloved Vyacheslav Tikhonov and Irina Pechernikova. Pechernikova never became as famous for a number of reasons, but is as wildly charming here as Audrey Hepburn during the same period. So do yourself a favor and treat yourself to one hundred minutes of heartfelt cinematic magic with lots of real, not made-up, lessons to teach audiences. In Russian, with English subtitles.

At the film’s bleakest moment, Vyacheslav Tikhonov’s character, a middle-aged bachelor history teacher and Second World War veteran who still lives with his mother, sings and plays the following song, “Oriole.”

The song’s lyrics are based on three stanzas (the first, third, and fifth) of a poem by the OBERIU poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, “In This Grove of Birch Trees.” Zabolotsky wrote the poem in 1946, the same year he returned to Moscow after eight years of imprisonment and exile in Siberia as a victim of the Stalinist Great Terror.

The full poem, which is considerably bleaker than the already gut-wrenching song lyrics suggest, reads as follows.

Nikolai Zabolotsky
In This Grove of Birch Trees

In this grove of birch trees so white,
Far from woe and misery,
Where the pink morning light
Unblinkingly shimmers,
Where, like a transparent rush,
Leaves shower down from tall limbs,
Sing to me, oriole, a song of anguish,
The song of my life.

Gliding over the forest glade
And eyeing people from a height,
You have selected a wooden,
Inconspicuous pipe.
So that, in morning’s bloom,
After visiting the dwellings of men,
You can greet my morn
With your chaste and humble matins.

But, after all, in life we are soldiers,
And at the limits of what the mind can stand,
Atoms quake and shudder,
Tossing up houses like a white whirlwind.
Like maddened windmills,
Warriors wave their wings around.
But where are you, forest hermit, oriole?
Why have you gone silent, my friend?

Ringed round by blasts,
Over abysses you fly,
Over the river, where the reeds turn black,
Over the ruins of death you glide.
A silent rover,
You guide me into the fray,
And the lethal cloud unfolds
Above you as you make your way.

Beyond the great rivers,
The sun shall rise, and in morning’s gloom,
My eyelids singed,
I shall fall dead to the ground.
Cawing like rabid ravens,
All trembling, the guns shall fall silent.
And then your voice shall sing
Inside my shattered heart.

And over the grove of birches,
Over my birch grove,
Where, an avalanche of pink,
The leaves shower from tall boughs,
Where, touched by a droplet divine,
Cold grows a bit of blossom,
The morning of solemn victory shall dawn
For centuries to come.

1946

You can find the original Russian text poem here or here, among other places. Petersburg critic, poet, and translator Valery Shubinsky has written an excellent critique of the poem, “The Last Battle,” which I hope to translate and publish under separate cover, when I find the time.

Photos and translation by the Russian Reader